In heated first debate, Ernst and Greenfield clash on vacant court seat, mask mandate

The canddiates for U.S. Senate in Iowa partipcated in a debate Sept. 28, 2020, on Iowa PBS. From left are moderator David Yepsen, Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield, reporter Caroline Cummings of Sinclair Broadcast Group and news director O. Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS livestream)

In their first televised debate, Republican Sen. Joni Ernst and Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield sparred over the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation vote and argued over the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and criminal justice reform.

Several times during the debate, the exchanges became heated enough that “Iowa Press” host and moderator David Yepsen asked the candidates to get back on topic and stop speaking over each other. With coronavirus setting the scene, the candidates sat at a table, separated by plexiglass.

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, left and Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield partcipated in a debate Sept. 28, 2020, on Iowa PBS. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS livestream)

Ernst, Iowa’s first female U.S. senator, was elected in 2014 and is seeking a second term. Greenfield, a real estate director, is the Democratic challenger seeking to unseat her.

The Senate race is viewed as one of the most competitive in the country and is rated as a toss-up, according to Cook Political Report. And the latest Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll showed a neck-to-neck race with Greenfield holding a 3-point edge over Ernst. 

Ad spending for Iowa’s Senate seat is the third most expensive in the nation, according to NBC News. Combined, the campaigns have spent $13.3 million.

Vacant U.S. Supreme Court seat

Both of Iowa’s senators are members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will consider any nominations for a successor to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died at 87.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican and former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has maintained that the Senate should not consider a Supreme Court nomination amid a presidential campaign, though he said he wouldn’t oppose any nomination hearings this year.

In 2018, Ernst said she did not believe a president should nominate a Supreme Court justice during an election year, including President Donald Trump, according to an interview with the Des Moines Register Editorial Board.

During Monday’s debate, Ernst said she will do her “duty,” as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and consider Trump’s nomination. She said she would not allow the “radical left” to pack the court.

Democratic Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield participated in a debate Sept. 28, 2020 on Iowa PBS. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS livestream)

Greenfield said that she would “independently vet” any court nominee regardless of party, but no nominations should be considered until after the election.

She said the Supreme Court should continue to seat nine justices.

“That is our institution and tradition and I don’t support packing the courts,” Greenfield said.

Criminal justice reform

This summer, protestors have called for criminal justice reform at the federal level in light of the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck during an arrest early this summer.

Ernst said she supported the Senate Republicans’ police reform bill, which provided incentives for police departments to ban chokeholds and focused on collecting data and requiring implicit bias training.

Democrats in the Senate supported a more comprehensive bill that also included a federal ban on chokeholds. They blocked the GOP proposal, which failed to reach a vote.

Ernst argued the Republican-backed bill had the majority of the policies Democrats supported.

“They didn’t want a solution. They wanted a political football,” Ernst said.

Greenfield said she supports passing a bipartisan police reform bill that requires law enforcement officers to undergo de-escalation training and implicit bias training. She said she also supports a ban on chokeholds.

“We need to work together like we did in this state to pass the plan for a ‘More Perfect Union,’” Greenfield said, referencing a local, bipartisan police reform bill that passed the Iowa Legislature this year.

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst participates in a debate on Sept. 28, 2020, on Iowa PBS. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS livestream)

In a contentious exchange, Ernst accused Greenfield of saying law enforcement officers are racist, pointing to the Democrat’s comments that law enforcement as an institution is “systemically racist.”

“I don’t believe that and I believe our communities can work together,” Ernst said. “They don’t have to be opposed.”

Greenfield said acknowledging systemic racism is not the same as calling police officers racist.

“We have systemic racism in all of our systems and have for generations, including our policing system,” Greenfield said. “That is not saying our police officers are racist.”

COVID-19 response and federal mask mandate

As the number COVID-19 deaths in Iowa has surpassed 1,000 people, both Ernst and Greenfield said they wear face coverings as a way to set an example and protect themselves and others from the virus.

Ernst said while she is in her hometown of Red Oak, she’ll wear a face covering to Dollar General or Hy-Vee, even if she is the only one who will do it.

However, she said she does not support a federal mask mandate and pointed to Des Moines’ mandate as an example of why it will not work.

Ernst said when she’s in Des Moines, she sees people in public not wearing a face covering.

“We know it’s unenforceable and it doesn’t work,” Ernst said.

Greenfield said she supports a statewide mask mandate and said she is frustrated by the federal government “because the guidelines aren’t clear,” regarding face coverings.

She criticized Ernst, saying she had six months in Congress to pass more measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, such as improved contact tracing, expanding the supply of personal protection equipment and requiring more protections for workers.

“Senator Ernst hasn’t taken action for six months,” Greenfield said.

Ernst said Congress has been working on providing COVID-19 aid to the whole country and said the CARES Act was able to provide the same measures Greenfield supports.

“We have been able to get four packages over the finish line,” Ernst said.

The hourlong “Iowa Press” debate can be viewed online at IowaPBS.org.